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master writer #6–barbara stuber, crossing the tracks

It’s been some time since I’ve posted a Master Writer blog entry. (See previous entries.) I’m pretty picky about my list of kidlit book authors who’ve mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.

I think you’ll be impressed with Barbara Stuber’s Crossing the Tracks:

A literary Young Adult novel in the finest and most engrossing sense, Crossing the Tracks is the story of Iris Baldwin, a 15-year-old-girl who lost her mother at a young age, and her father’s attention as well. When Iris’ father hires her out–without consulting Iris–to a rural doctor and his invalid mother, she has to use her grit and heart to find her way home.

BARBARA STUBER’S SUPER POWER

She recreates her novel’s historic period with immediacy, as now time, not the past.

Crossing the Tracks is set in the mid-1920s, but you’re not going to find tired references to mobsters, flappers and bathtub gin. Barbara Stuber has done incredible research and uses multiple techniques to put us smack-dab in Iris’ life.

1. Barbara PLACES PERIOD PRODUCT NAMES throughout her novel:

“After a sprinkle of Pompeian Beauty Powder, I step into my favorite cotton dress that’s white with yellow flowers and lacy sleeves.”

Pompeian Beauty Powder was a real toiletry that ladies used during the time period Crossing the Tracks takes place. Barb shows us the lack of deodorants and antiperspirants at the time, but also finds a powder name that complements the art deco goddess wallpaper in Iris’ room. Every choice the author makes builds atmosphere.

 

2. Barbara’s WORD CHOICES ARE CONSISTENT WITH THE PERIOD OF TIME SHE IS WRITING ABOUT.

“…my hat and pocketbook thump on the floor.”

“…she fusses, giving her cane a snappy hurry up tap.”

“…Poorly isn’t all she’s going to feel when Cecil finds out…”

While the highlighted words are still in the dictionary today, they are contemporary to the 1920s. (There’s a reason your Grandma uses them.) The trick is to insert just the right amount of dated and/or unfamiliar words. Too much, and you risk producing a parody. Too little, and your characters might as well be living next door to you today.

3. Iris Baldwin grows into a brave young lady–yet she is a creature of THE SENSIBILITIES OF THE TIME. It’s reasonable for her to find the strength to–get to the place where she ends up. (I will not spoil this book for you. It’s too good!) But women were not as open about their bodily functions then as they are now:

“Outside our shoe store window I used to watch ladies, some of them mothers of girls in my class, go into Lowen’s Pharmacy and come out with a bulky sack–their ‘silent purchase’. The store had a system–you put money in a box and took a package of Kotex pads off the counter without saying anything to anybody.”

Nothing screams “fraud” louder than putting millennial ideology in your main character’s head. It’s a disservice to people of the past, who were hamstrung by the mores of the day.

Barbara Stuber’s Crossing the Tracks is on the Kirkus 2010 Best for Teens List and the short list for the ALA’s William Morris Award. It’s an emotionally true story, packed with stunning detail that puts us inside every scene.

And so I declare Barbara Stuber Master of Recreating Her Novel’s Historic Period With Immediacy: As Now Time, Not The Past.

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master writer #3–nancy werlin, the rules of survival

Today we look at the YA novel,  The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin, continuing my series about kidlit books in which the author has achieved amazing heights in some facet of their writing.

[unofficial trailer]

Brutally honest, The Rules of Survival depicts big-brother Matt’s day-to-day struggle to make sure he and his sisters make it through life with their vicious, unpredictable mother. Things look up when Murdoch starts dating their mom and she tries to appear normal, but when he leaves, things are worse than ever. Matt is going to have to take action if they’re all going to stay alive.

NANCY WERLIN’S SUPERPOWER

She has written the perfect first chapter.

Bold statement, I know. But in seven little pages, Nancy Werlin gives us the setting, the five major characters, (two of whom aren’t even in the scene) and the dilemma.

The book is written as a memoir to Matt’s youngest sister, telling her what happened one fateful year when she was too young to remember.

1. The only reason a reader sticks with a book is the author MAKES US CURIOUS TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS TO THE MAIN CHARACTER, usually because we like him. Nancy establishes immediately how seriously Matt takes his responsibility for his little sisters:

“It was hard to figure out what would be the safest thing to do, for all three of us, all the time. But it was my job.”

“I was thinking that in a year–a year and a half–I could maybe go out by myself at night and trust Callie with you…I’d still be careful that you weren’t alone with her {their mother} when she came home after her Saturday night outings.”

2. Nancy cleverly and without telling, lays out the atmosphere, characters and problem. This adds up to ESTABLISHING A READER’S CONTRACT that you can count on to let you know what you’re in for. Look at these select lines from the first chapter of The Rules of Survival:

“…it was a date night for our mother–Saturday–so we’d been locked in.”

“Once Callie and I heard you snoring…we slipped out a window onto the back deck…”

“…My dad was afraid of our mother. He kept out of her way…I understood. She was unpredictable.”

“The big man…shook him hard, and kept doing it…And then the other man, the one I later knew was called Murdoch, was between the father and son. Murdoch snatched the little kid away from his father…”

“But Murdock talked directly to the kid. ‘It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you. No matter who does it, it’s wrong. Can you remember that?'”

From these snippets you can see that Nancy lets her readers know that this book is going to be about hard-core child abuse. Not only is the mother described leaving her children unattended, but her former lover, a grown man, is afraid of her. But there is hope! Her children are resourceful–they know how to slip out of the locked apartment.

But then, interestingly, Matt witnesses a father abusing his son in public, and a stranger steps in to put a stop to it. He says the amazing words: “It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you.” This isn’t a random event. This is a signal of the code Matt and the girls are going to learn to live by.

3. Of course there’s no point in reading a book if you know everything that’s going to happen, so Nancy gives us THE MYSTERIOUS TWIST. In this case, It’s a character, Murdoch. He’s introduced in the very first line:

“For me, the story begins with Murdoch McIlvane.”

He isn’t mentioned again until page four, after you understand the dire straits Matt and his sisters are in. Murdoch turns out to be sort of a hero, and just when you think he’ll swoop in to fix their lives, he walks out the door. On page seven.

How in the heck is this all going to work out?

Well, honey, turn to the second chapter and READ!

Get a copy of  The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin–study that first chapter. You will be amazed by everything you know about the characters, the situation, the story by the end of the first chapter–and everything you want to know. For that reason, I dub Nancy Werlin the Perfect First Chapter Master.

master writer #2–laura manivong, escaping the tiger

Last Friday I started a blog-series in which I look at kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.

This week it’s Laura Manivong’s Escaping the Tiger:

Straddling the Middle-Grade /Young Adult market, Escaping the Tiger tells the story of one family’s escape from communist Laos. 12-year-old Vonlai, his sister Dalah and his parents risk their lives to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. There, they discover life in a refugee camp is anything but pleasant. They will have to conquer hunger, violence, boredom and despair in their quest to build a future where they can be free.

LAURA MANIVONG’S SUPERPOWER

She makes you feel as if you are physically present in her setting.

Maybe you’ve been in a refugee camp in southeast Asia, but I haven’t. After reading Escaping the Tiger, however, I feel like I visited there for a very long time.

1.  A great way to establish setting, especially in an exotic locale, is to USE DESCRIPTIONS THAT ARE ROOTED IN THE CULTURE WHICH YOU ARE DESCRIBING. Laura does this here, where Pah tells Vonlai on the night of their escape how quietly he must walk on the way from their house to the Mekong River.

“Walk like a tiger hunting a meal. Understand?”

Notice that Laura isn’t even describing “the setting”, per se, but this one line lets you visualize an entire jungle, and  Vonlai walking silently through it. As a bonus, the ferocious image of a tiger lets you feel the anxiety of carrying this order out successfully. It means life or death.

2.  Laura has the distinct advantage of being married to Troy Manivong, who escaped from Laos and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand as a young man. She had access to USE DETAILS  SO SPECIFIC ONLY SOMEONE WHO HAD BEEN THERE WOULD KNOW THEM.


“His bike that had a rolled towel wired and taped on for a seat.”

Even novels that are pure fiction contain details so well thought-out they appear to be true.

3.  An effective way to draw in your readers is to SHOW HOW THE SETTING AFFECTS YOUR CHARACTERS. Laura doesn’t describe the weather or living conditions anywhere in this passage:

“Inside the building, Vonlai tried to sit upright on the bench that lined the wall. Pah and Meh filled out paper-work. Dalah slouched over her own lap, her face buried behind a wall of hair that should have been washed a week ago. An oscillating fan pushed a blanket of air toward them every few seconds….

Vonlai swept palmfuls of sweat from behind his knees…

Vonlai rubbed a hand across his leg. A streak of clean skin appeared and a muddy drip of sweat fell from his hand.”

I would like a bubble bath and loofah sponge immediately, please. Ick.

Of course Laura Manivong has a lot of tricks in her bag. Pick up Escaping the Tiger to learn from her, my candidate to you as Setting-the-Reader-In-The-Book Master.

Did you know Escaping the Tiger started out as a Picture Book? What does Laura’s Manivong-family think of the book? Watch a mini-interview:



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